Rancid bassist Matt Freeman may well be the nimblest musician in punk history, but he’s got a voice like a pair of semis crashing into each other. It starts out a flat, gravelly roar and quickly picks up volume but not speed; he sings as far behind the beat as he plays ahead of it. He sounds wounded, and it’s why his band steals NOFX’s greatest song, “Don’t Call Me White,” right out from under them — literally, since the bands share space on L.A. label BYO’s Split Series/Volume III, covering six of each other’s songs. Guess that’s what NOFX get for that song about the guy in the tie-dyed Rancid T-shirt.
Rancid have never been all that great a cover band — cf. the live “Harder They Come” from the Tibetan Freedom Concerts — probably because they’ve always come across as a cover of the Clash themselves. But freed of the need to prove themselves, they let rip here. They don’t take many liberties, and they don’t have to: The internal-combustion dynamics of Lars Frederiksen and Tim Armstrong’s guitar and vocal trade-offs add even more juice to the already speedy “Moron Bros” and “Bob” (the latter replacing NOFX’s lazy, Specials-like trombone solo with flashy rockabilly guitar).
NOFX are craftier, switching “Corazon de Oro” from organ-driven skank to a straight-chugging charger, and doing the opposite for “Radio,” which Rancid recorded as a very very fast rock song and NOFX reclaim as outlandishly swinging ska that sounds like the great lost single of 1995. But as Freeman’s “Don’t Call Me White” demonstrates, the most effective differences here are vocal. It’s one thing for gutter-hipster Armstrong to sneer, “Let California fall into the fucking ocean” in “Antennas”; it’s something else in Fat Mike’s ur-mall drawl. If Frederiksen can’t do the same with “Don’t ever take away from me my pornography” — “Vanilla Sex” ‘s rallying cry — it’s only because Mike sounds like he consumes more of it.
NOFX play Irving Plaza March 15 and 16.